Author Mohammed Hanif travels back in time to tell the story of the places he’s called ‘home’ in Karachi. He recounts a journey from the backwaters to the bright lights of the big city – and how the literary seed was sown…
Here is the story of seven places that are part of his story.
Aagay Samundar Hai
Your first home in Karachi is a little room in a big, empty house near Sea View. The owners live in Norway, the servants live in the house and you live in a little extension that was probably meant to accommodate those servants. You have one bag of clothes and books, a cassette player and three tapes. You drive a Suzuki 100 that you bought from a milkman. This is the first time in your life that you are living close to the beach. Judging by the stench, in the evenings it seems half of Karachi’s population has pissed in the sea. At night you wake up to the roar of the waves. For a few moments you are scared; is this a giant bellowing? Is it a tornado approaching? Is this what grown-up life is like?
A pair of Bengali servants – you’ll never discover their exact relationship – take care of the house. To your lonely heart it seems they have been hired to canoodle in every corner of the house. They seem so much in love with each other, it frightens you. You wonder if you should have rented the premises in Baloch Colony, where the owner promised that the water pump was situated only one street away and it would be okay if you wanted to keep goats.
Your sustenance comes from a one litre bottle of Fanta and a large fruit bun. You take a bite, you take a sip, you kick-start your bike and roar into the city. One day you pick up the bun and see fungus growing on it. You start spending your nights in Sabzi Mandi.
Sabzi Mandi Ki Sair…
Surreptitiously, without ever asking or telling, you move in with a friend who lives in a room in a private school right next to Sabzi Mandi. The school has rented a room to this new arrival in town who is a reformed druggie, a recovering socialist and a struggling theatre artist. You wake up to the cackle of a thousand children in white shirts; it’s a bit like living in the middle of a poultry farm. You can’t really get out of your room till the kids go home. But after school and on the weekends, you are king of the establishment. The basketball hoops are yours, and so is the headmaster’s office. You do the rounds of Sabzi Mandi at night, not really looking for vegetables. People come from all over Pakistan and you get to sample the diverse gifts they bring and share generously. Your new friends in the neighbourhood are embarking on their political careers; one stops by to ask if he can borrow a churidar pajama as he has to report for duty at Nine Zero. Peoples Party boys tell you that the only way to get the PPP leaders to accept their demands is to wield a US flag and a matchbox, preferably when cameras are around. After school hours the school sometimes turns into a gambling den, a drug lab and a rendezvous point for friends of friends for a bit of random love. You come back from work and count five used condoms strewn around the place. You feel melancholic. A friend arrives from one of the backward districts of Punjab and brings with him a stereo so huge that all of you can’t fit in the same room.
Empress Market kay Badshah
You think you are on the top of the world because you find a flat on the top floor of an eight-storey building that overlooks Karachi Grammar school. You hire a maid who some days has to make 25 chapattis because it seems all the drifters from the Punjab’s backwaters have congregated here. Sometimes there is nothing to go with the chapattis except yogurt.
You go to work where your office tea boy is a 55-year-old who lives with 18 cats in a tiny shack. He used to be a butcher once, he shows you his sliced thumb to prove it. He would like to get back to his old profession.
One evening a dreaded gentleman from your past barges in with a woman with very large eyes and a chaddar. His claim to fame is that he has slept with two hundred and sixty-three women. He keeps a diary. He has shown you the diary. You are rude to him and make sure that the woman doesn’t become two hundred and sixty-four in your flat. You like being the moral police.
You come back very late from work one night and Empress Market square is resounding with the beat of drums and dozens of Pathans in a circle doing their dance. You have seen that Khattak dance on TV. The circle parts for you and you join in. They all think you are queer.
Meanwhile, your tentative housemate’s tentative girlfriend threatens to throw herself out of the window. The place is clearly way above your budget.
Kashmir Road kay Mehmaan: Azaadi ya Maut
You live as a paying guest at a famous poet’s rambling mansion on Kashmir Road. Your head spins as you enter your room. The room is circular, the bathroom looks like an igloo from the outside. Your life turns into a bizarre set of events. You adopt a street puppy which is kidnapped. You rescue it and then abandon it. You start meeting boys from Natha Khan Goth who run a theatre group. It seems the goth is populated by theatre enthusiasts. They are so smart they can look at your ashtray and tell your future. They tell you your future belongs in Natha Khan Goth.
Natha Khan Goth mein Nautanki
The only window in your flat overlooks a sandbag bunker belonging to the Rangers and a chapli kabab shop. You are one minute off Drigh Road, but it seems you are in a village that can’t decide whether it prefers a traffic jam or a curfew. You start writing and rehearsing a play. In it there are to be nine boys and a girl. You ask your thespian comrades: aur larki kahan se aiyay gi? You manage to find your female character. She starts going out with the best actor in the group. The second-best actor starts spreading malicious rumours about them. The best actor borrows a TT pistol from someone (borrowing a TT pistol in Natha Khan Goth is easier than borrowing a bicycle or getting a girl to act in a play), wanting to shoot the second-best actor. The second-best actor hides behind some props. You remind them that there is no shooting in the script.
Some troubled friends from the backward districts of Punjab decide to use your flat as a rehab centre. Not a good idea. Drugs in Natha Khan Goth are as easy to get, as cheap and as delicious as the chapli kababs just below your apartment. They sell drugs that help you rid yourself of the addiction to other drugs. And then they sell you opium to get over all those drugs they sold you earlier. And you thought opium was so eighteenth century.
The best actor gets married to the only girl in the play and disappears. The second-best actor goes on to win many Best Actor Awards. You think that’s as close to a happy ending as your group is likely to get.
Studio Kay Shab-o-Roz
You get a ground floor studio flat with a little kitchenette in a commercial area in Defence. You have just spent some time in Washington DC and then in Havana. You buy a bicycle and ride to work. You start drinking black coffee and learn to make chutneys. Your friends think you are a lifestyle slut. The fact is that you have no money for a motorbike and can’t afford to eat out. Then a leasing company pays you a visit and you sign a paper. Suddenly you have a big TV, a VCR and an air conditioner. Your barren little studio is suddenly full of stuff. You become a regular at a video shop called Movie Mahal where all below the counter movies are appropriately titled National Geographic. Sometimes when you venture out of your pleasure palace, you find the streets deserted. You have no idea that you are walking into a curfew. Then a police mobile sees you and starts shooting, you run back to your studio.
You try to write plays. There are lots of girls who want to do plays.
And then…You live in a dead poet’s house and learn to read
The life lesson that you’ll learn in this damp Zamzama apartment, you’ll learn from a prostitute. But before that you discover a world of wonder. Your new flat was owned by a poet who died young. The place has nothing but books. Many times thumbed books read with love, passages underlined, reactions noted, little slips of paper with cross references inserted, obscure words circled and explained. Here your housemates are Borges, Calvino and Mohammed Khalid Akhter. You have always read books but you have never really learnt to read like this. Here each book you pick comes with the gentle guidance of your late landlord Sagheer Malal. He tutors you from beyond, he teaches you the bleeding obvious: you can’t write if you don’t know how to read.
Then one day your occasional housemate goes out and comes rushing back with two women. Outside there is a curfew and the women need shelter for a while. They have come all the way from Korangi 6 to meet some clients who seem to have disappeared. One is a tall, dark Amazonian character with wild laughter and wants you to write her tragic love story. She comes from a backward district of Punjab. The other one is short and confident and wants to make a few phone calls to try and make contact with other potential clients. “Aren’t you scared of roaming around in the middle of this curfew, so far away from home?” I ask.
The tall one thinks that not only do you have no money, you are also stupid and replies in her backward district’s mother tongue: “It’s work. You get screwed. You get paid. What is there to be scared of?”
Logical enough. You remain scared…
Mohammed Hanif is a journalist, novelist and playwright who worked as reporter for Newsline before joining the BBC. He is the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.